Some had expected a slap in the face for the ruling ANC in this election.
More like a slap on the wrist?
Leading up to this national election, the party of Nelson Mandela was wracked by internal squabbles and facing sustained allegations of corruption against top names in the party.
The economy of South Africa has flatlined. The national power utility is struggling to keep the lights on. Voter apathy is at an all-time high.
Still, under the leadership of President Cyril Ramaphosa, the African National Congress held onto a significant majority, garnering 57.5% of the vote, according to the Electoral Commission of South Africa.
Their win is as much about history as it is about performance – which even Ramaphosa admits has been below par.
The ANC is the liberation party in South Africa and a main force in throwing off the yoke of the racist apartheid regime a quarter century ago. That counts for a lot, especially amongst the older generation of South Africans.
The ANC-led government has brought electricity and housing to huge swathes of the country that had none – a powerful legacy at election time. Millions depend on the government for social grants and other safety nets. Fairly or unfairly, many identify this with the ANC.
But another factor in this election was Ramaphosa himself.
Despite being the ultimate ANC insider and a deputy president under maligned predecessor Jacob Zuma, Ramaphosa seemed to create just enough distance from the graft allegations to appeal to a broader spectrum of South Africans.
Whether the former trade union leader and private sector billionaire can clean up the party with this mandate remains an important and open question. For now, the voters seem to be giving him the benefit of the doubt.
But the results also show that enthusiasm for the ANC is waning – and Ramaphosa should worry about the future.
Radicals find support in world’s most unequal nation
This is the ANC’s worst showing since 1994. And it represents a steady erosion of support over the past three national elections.
The younger generation in South Africa, who have less attachment to the history of the ANC, stayed away from the ballot in droves. Millions of the so-called “born frees” didn’t even bother to register to vote.
Low youth turnout is a global phenomenon. But the many young people here feel they have valid reasons not to vote. They say democracy hasn’t lived up to its promise and around 50% of young South Africans don’t have jobs.
Despite the emergence of a black middle class, South Africa is now the most unequal country on earth.
According to a recent World Bank study, South Africa’s richest households are almost 10 times wealthier than poor households. And the overall poverty levels still follow racial lines.
That racial disparity and inequality has forged support for more radical voices in this ballot.
And the biggest winners of this election, arguably, are the smaller parties taking more strident political positions.
The Economic Freedom Front (EFF), led by the charismatic and often controversial Julius Malema, pushed a far-left agenda and promised land and jobs for the poor.
To redress the past, land redistribution and restitution was supposed to be a priority of the ANC-led government. But it has been beset by delays and allegations of corruption.
The EFF gained support from a more aggressive stance on land reform – driving the agenda of land expropriation without compensation. They also gained prominence for a relentless campaign against Zuma that led to street protests and fistfights in Parliament.
In just their second national election, the EFF captured more than 10% of the vote, a substantial number in a parliamentary system like South Africa.
For South Africans tired of record levels of inequality and lack of opportunity, the EFF is a fresh voice that promises change – even if their policy choices make foreign investors and the business community decidedly nervous.
Ramaphosa looks for Madiba magic
The polarizing policies have created a mirror – of sorts – in the Afrikaner rights party the Freedom Front Plus. They are promising to protect land rights for their supporters with slogans like “slaan terug,” or “fight back.”
From a negligible base, they have had a solid showing.
Perhaps the biggest “loser” of the major parties is the official opposition Democratic Alliance (DA), which captured 20.8% of the vote.
After growing their numbers for several elections, the DA’s support has stalled – even dropping marginally in the polls.
The DA touted its governance credentials in provinces and cities and has been a leading force in combating corruption and Zuma.
But they lost the perfect foil in Zuma. And Ramaphosa is deeply respected by business and the middle class – both part of the DA base.
Their showing will be a deep disappointment for a party that was looking to broaden its tent.
For days, party representatives cycled through the election center in Pretoria dubbed “The Rock” to spin their case. Largely, this vote has gone over without a major hitch.
It’s the country’s sixth successful national election since the end of apartheid, so it is easy to forget that South Africa’s peaceful democratic transition in 1994 was considered highly improbable by many observers – some even call it a “miracle.”
With South Africa’s democracy maturing, the memory of Mandela’s era is fading.
The incoming government faces staggering economic and social challenges.
Perhaps trying to capture some of that old “Madiba magic” that Mandela was famous for, Ramaphosa is calling for a “new dawn” in the country.
Whether or not they believe him, South Africans certainly need one.